Warren Bechhoefer might just have to make the 2,000-plus-mile drive from his home in Phoenix to the historic Wilkinsburg train station.
It will be a chance for the 93-year-old to show off the car he restored and check out the restoration of a Western Pennsylvania landmark he helped finance.
“I have a Datsun 240Z here that I restored,” Bechhoefer said last week. “It’s cherry red and will knock your eyes out. I might just drive out there. We’ll see.”
Bechhoefer grew up in Wilkinsburg and has been sending monthly $30 checks to help with the long-sought restoration of the borough’s train station. He is one of a cadre of Wilkinsburg High School graduates — the school closed in 2016 and students were shifted to Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse High School — who have donated about $175,000 to the $6.5 million restoration costs. The amount contributed by Wilkinsburg High School graduates is a surprising amount considering many no longer live in the borough, said Tracey Evans, the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. executive director.
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. led a fundraising effort that drew support from the state, Allegheny County, the borough and charitable foundations. Work is scheduled to be done in October, and the WCDC is marketing the building for a restaurant and entertainment venue on the main floor and offices in the former basement baggage area.
“Every year, there were stories about how do we redo the train station,” Evans said. “This year, we’re finally going to have a story saying it’s done.”
Built in 1916 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the station on Hay Street long served as a community hub. It continues to evoke nostalgic memories among those who lived in the borough during its zenith. After it closed in the mid-1970s, it served as a symbol of Wilkinsburg’s decline, sitting abandoned and blighted in the heart of the borough across from the borough hall and a former post office. In 1985, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2008, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County acquired it through a bankruptcy proceeding. In 2016, the Richard King Mellon Foundation provided a $1 million matching grant for the restoration. The borough bought the building from the authority for $502,257 in 2017, according to county real estate records.
Evans said the roof leaked, and rain created a pond in the once-grand lobby with Italian marble paneling and terrazzo floor. Weeds grew from exterior walls and a decorative steel canopy outside the main entrance was blighted with rust.
“The building had a lot more extensive damage than we were able to realize at first,” Evans said. “We are in the process of doing a complete historic restoration of this building. Every part of it will be replicated back to the original state, including the clock, which people ask about all the time. It will be working. The outside will be exactly the way it was with a portico where people drove up an dropped off their passengers.”
She said anything that could be salvaged was documented and catalogued and will be reused after being refurbished.
Last week, masons from Castle Shannon-based Marsa Inc. were busy inside restoring and polishing Italian marble.
“This is all etching from previous acid and rain and stuff because there was no roof in here,” said bricklayer Neal Mehrenberg, rubbing a hand over a tarnished piece of marble. “Through polishing and cleaning, you can bring it back to a mirror finish like it used to have. It just shows that stuff doesn’t have to be torn down.”
Bud Wise, 72, of Squirrel Hill, graduated from Wilkinsburg High School in 1965 and helped organize the efforts of alumni to help with the restoration. He said more than 100 graduates sent donations.
“I think the people who attended Wilkinsburg High School in that era love Wilkinsburg,” he said. “I think that there is a loyalty factor there and a kind of a hope factor that Wilkinsburg can kind of return to the glory days. I think it just touches a little heartstrings with people, and people were happy to be a part of it.”
Borough officials are pinning hopes that the train station and other recent developments in town will be a catalyst for change.
“This building has always been one of the main symbols of renaissance for Wilkinsburg,” Evans said. “Now it’s going to be a symbol of revival.”